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Walter v. Berryhill

United States District Court, S.D. Ohio, Western Division, Dayton

September 1, 2017



          Sharon L. Ovington United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Plaintiff Samantha Walter brings this case challenging the Social Security Administration's denial of her application for Disability Insurance Benefits. She applied for benefits on August 4, 2012, asserting that she could no longer work a substantial paid job due to anxiety, depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, and obesity. Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) Christopher L. Dillon concluded that she was not eligible for benefits because she is not under a “disability” as defined in the Social Security Act.

         The case is before the Court upon Plaintiff's Statement of Errors (Doc. #7), the Commissioner's Memorandum in Opposition (Doc. #9), Plaintiff's Reply (Doc. #10), and the administrative record (Doc. #6).

         Plaintiff seeks a remand of this case for payment of benefits or, at a minimum, for further proceedings. The Commissioner asks the Court to affirm ALJ Dillon's non-disability decision.

         II. Background

         Plaintiff asserts that she has been under a “disability” since July 25, 2012. She was twenty-three years old at that time and was therefore considered a “younger person” under Social Security Regulations. See 20 C.F.R. § 404.1563(c). She has a high school education. See Id. § 404.1564(b)(4).

         A. Plaintiff's Testimony

         Plaintiff testified at the hearing before ALJ Dillon that when she has a panic attack, she gets pain in the left side of her chest and down the left side of her arm; her mouth goes numb (sometimes); she breathes heavily; her pulse rate increases; she cries; and she feels like she needs to get away from everyone. (Doc. #6, PageID #70). When she has a panic attack at home, she goes into her bedroom. Id. If it gets too bad, she goes to the hospital. Id. at 71. If she is playing outside with her child and sees a person, she goes inside. Id. When asked why, she explained, “I'm just scared. Scared to be around those people. Scared that they may know me, know my history, and my past, or if it's a stranger I just get scared that they may notice something about me and confront me, or just in general the fear of being around any type of person other than those of close relation.” Id. at 71-72. If she is at someone else's house, she goes into the bathroom, outside, or away from people. Id. at 71. She does not want anyone to see her have a panic attack. Id. “Sometimes when I'm alone and I have a panic attack, I'm afraid of being around people, but I'm also afraid of being alone, and having a panic attack, and not being able to get anywhere, and feeling like I'm going to die.” Id. at 70.

         Plaintiff's panic attacks sometimes have a specific trigger. Id. at 66. For example, when she has a list of chores, she will “[m]ost always” have an attack. Id. at 72. A sink full of dishes, a load of laundry in the dryer, a really fussy baby, or a cluttered/dusty home may also cause one. Id. But, a majority of the time, there is no trigger. Id. at 66. Even if she is watching TV or is by herself, she has panic attacks. Id. They usually last one to two hours and happen five to six times in a week. Id.

         Plaintiff's mother, who lives five minutes away, and her mother-in-law, who also lives very close, help Plaintiff with her child. Id. at 65. Because her panic attacks come on very quickly, “[a]s soon as I feel any tightness in my chest, or the symptoms I know that are going to start causing me to have a panic attack, I will call [my mom] right away before it goes into a full-blown panic attack.” Id. at 67. For example, when her child starts crying, her anxiety starts, and she calls one of them to help her with him until she can calm down. Id. at 65.

         Plaintiff is also agoraphobic. Id. at 67. It “came along with the panic.” Id. She is still able to go where there are people, but she cannot do it by herself-she always takes someone with her. Id. But even when she has people with her, she still has panic attacks. Id. at 74. If she is in a store with someone and she starts feeling one, she will give the list to the other person and go to the car to be by herself. Id. At least once or twice per week, she will go to a store with someone but will not be able to make it into the front door. Id.

         Plaintiff is able to drive but is very scared to. Id. at 66. The fear started when she started having panic attacks. Id. She also has many other fears including: drinking caffeine; being in her house with the doors unlocked; going outside; running into someone she knows; being around people when she is having a panic attack; and worrying that the other person will notice that she is anxious or panicky. Id. at 69.

         She explained that she would not be able to work in a job where she did not have to deal with the public and sat in a cubical all day because “My focus is very off. I require a lot of medication throughout the entire day. So, I would have to constantly have medication with me. If there was a complication, say if I was in a cubical, a computer, and there was a small complication, a very small problem could trigger me very, very quick.” Id. at 69-70.

         B. Medical Opinions

         i. Irfan Dahar, M.D.

         Plaintiff's treating psychiatrist, Dr. Dahar, first saw Plaintiff on March 11, 2013, and sees her approximately once per month. Id. at 406. On July 1, 2013, he completed a mental impairment questionnaire. Id. at 406-09. Dr. Dahar diagnosed agoraphobia with panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder and assigned a current global assessment of functioning score of 40. Id. at 406. He identified several of her signs and symptoms including: poor memory, sleep disturbance, personality change, mood disturbances, emotional lability, recurrent panic attacks, anhedonia or pervasive loss of interests, feelings of guilt/worthlessness, difficulty thinking or concentrating, social withdrawal or isolation, decreased energy, intrusive recollections of a traumatic experience, persistent irrational fears, generalized persistent anxiety, and hostility/irritability. Id.

         Dr. Dahar opined that Plaintiff has “severe to debilitating anxiety [with] panic attacks, can no longer drive or go into public places alone. Panics even when others are driving. Depression is moderate [and] marked by loss of interests, poor functioning at home, [and] low self esteem.” Id. at 407. Additionally, she has extreme difficulties in maintaining social functioning. Id. at 408. She is also extremely limited in her ability to sustain an ordinary routing without special supervision; work in coordination with or in proximity to other without being distracted by them; complete a normal workday or workweek without interruption from psychologically based symptoms and to perform at a consistent pace without an unreasonable number and length of rest periods; interact appropriately with the general public; and travel in unfamiliar places or use public transportation. Id. at 408-09. She has marked restrictions of activities of daily living. Id. at 408.

         Further, Dr. Dahar noted that her “condition is expected to be a long-standing problem [and] progress is slow.” Id. at 407. Her prognosis is “guarded.” Id. Dr. Dahar opined Plaintiff would be absent from work more than three times per month due to her impairments and treatment. Id. at 408.

         ii. Beth Vehre, M.D.

         Dr. Vehre, Plaintiff's treating primary-care physician, completed interrogatories on October 23, 2013. Id. at 690-95. Dr. Vehre last saw Plaintiff on October 21, 2013, and Plaintiff has been their patient since August 22, 2003.[1] Id. at 690. Dr. Vehre opined that Plaintiff's panic disorder is “complex [and] difficult to control despite counselling, meds, [and] psychiatric management.” Id. at 691. Dr. Vehre stopped treating Plaintiff's panic disorder in February 2013 when she began treatment for her mental impairments with Dr. Dahar. Id.

         Dr. Vehre opined Plaintiff could not be prompt and regular in attendance because she would have frequent absences due to her panic disorder. Id. at 691. Additionally, she could not respond appropriately to supervision, co-workers, and customary work pressures. Id. at 692. She has difficulty tolerating daily life stresses. Id. She could sustain attention and concentration on her work but only when she is not having a panic episode. Id. She can relate predictably in social situations, “but not in [a] good way, may be predicted [to] have panic episode.” Id. Plaintiff is not able to complete a normal workday or workweek without interruption from psychologically and/or physically based symptoms and perform at a consistent pace without unreasonable numbers and lengths of rest periods. Id. at 695. Dr. Vehre explained that Plaintiff has “at least daily panic episodes [and] constant anxiety.” Id.

         iii. Timothy Smith, LPCC

         Mr. Smith, Plaintiff's treating counselor since September 2009, completed three mental impairment questionnaires. He indicated that he sees her weekly, and she is very compliant with treatment. Id. at 375, 378. He opined, “With medication management [and] counseling[, ] symptoms have continued to persist. … With all the work Samantha is doing[, ] she continues to be severely impacted by anxiety [and] panic.” Id. at 403.

         Mr. Smith noted Plaintiff has recurrent panic attacks, social withdrawal/isolation, and generalized persistent anxiety. Id. at 402. He indicated Plaintiff's signs and symptoms of anxiety include heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, nervous stomach, sweating, paralyzing fear, and impending doom. Id. at 374. She is, at times, “easily distracted” by anxiety and its symptoms. Id. at 375.

         Plaintiff's ability to adapt to situations is poor. Id. Additionally, she has a poor stress tolerance and needs frequent breaks to manage stress/anxiety. Id. at 377. On average, Plaintiff's impairments and treatment would cause her to be absent from work more than three times per month. Id. at 404. She has marked deficiencies of concentration, persistence, or pace resulting in failure to complete tasks in a timely manner; moderate difficulties in maintaining social functioning, and slight restrictions of activities of daily living. Id.

         iv. Alan R. Boerger, Ph.D.

         Dr. Boerger evaluated Plaintiff on December 18, 2012. Id. at 293-98. He diagnosed panic disorder with agoraphobia and depressive disorder, not otherwise specified, and assigned a global assessment of functioning score of sixty. Id. at 297. He opined, “Ms. Walter appears to have chronic problems with anxiety but more recent onset of a panic disorder. She does have a history of traumatic experiences early in life in the form of witnessing a rape and being a victim of rape. There also appear to be indications of chronic mild depression.” Id. Additionally, “Because of the longstanding nature of her emotional difficulties, emotional symptoms are likely to be present for the indefinite future.” Id.

         Dr. Boerger did not find any indications of a memory impairment. Id. at 298. He noted that she reported “being distracted at times by her own thoughts and worry[, ]” but she only made three errors in performing serial sevens. Id. She also reported “some guardedness and slowness to trust others.” Id. However, she related in an appropriate manner with Dr. Boerger, and he did not find any other indications of difficulty relating to others. Id. He concluded, “Ms. Walter's anxiety and depression may limit her ability to tolerate work pressures in the work setting.” Id.

         v. Robyn ...

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